Lent 3A. 23 March 2014.
Exactly two weeks ago, Mary Ellen Ruddy asked me where I would travel if I could. I said that I’d like to visit the Holy Land—the place, but not the politics. I would imagine that being in the Holy Land would be very moving. I remember Ray Brownfield talking about that from his own experience. From what I have heard it can be life-changing to see the places we read about in the Bible.
If I ever get there, I would want to see what any other Christian would want to see. But there are one or two places that interest me that perhaps might not interest everyone. I would want to visit the old city of Shechem.
If you remember Joseph in the Old Testament—the one who dreamed the dreams and was the Pharaoh’s right hand man—the favored son of Jacob. Well, he is buried near Shechem. Shechem was a city-state—a large, impressive city located strategically in the pass between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal—meaning that you cannot pass through those mountains without passing through Shechem. It had a major military fortress, and it had a temple—“one of the largest pre-Roman temples ever discovered in Palestine.”
After Moses died, his assistant Joshua, led the people across the Jordan. If you read the story, Joshua ordered the Levitical priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan. The Ark was the travelling container for the stone tablets Moses had inscribed with the Torah. It was said to contain the very presence and glory of God himself.
When the priests set foot in the Jordan, the waters “piled up” so that the Hebrew people walked through the Jordan, just like they had walked through the Red Sea. People don’t remember that story, but it’s in the Bible. The priests carried the Ark into the river, and the river stopped. And while the Ark was in the river bed—at “Parade Rest” (to use the military term) the people walked from one side of the river to the land of Canaan. (Joshua 3) There was also a temple in the city of Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant came to rest.
In time, the Philistines would come and make war with the Israelites. After one skirmish, they captured the Ark, and for seven months the Philistines had so many health problems that they returned it to the Israelites. (1 Sam 5) From there the Ark was given to Eleazar the son of Abinadab, and he kept watch over the Ark for twenty years at Kiriath-jearim, which is about eight miles northwest of Jerusalem.
When King David was anointed, it is said that he was very shrewd. He took the Ark from Kiriath-jearim, and brought it to Jerusalem with great fanfare. David literally danced naked before the people, as a sign of his total abandon and joy at the presence of the Ark in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, under King David, was to become the seat of all political and religious power. And is to this day. The Ark rested in Jerusalem in a tent, until Solomon built the Temple. And that temple is “The Temple”—the one that would be destroyed during the Babylonian exile, and then rebuilt by King Herod.
But what about Shechem? What about Shiloh and Mt. Gerizim? What about those ancient cities where the Hebrew people had worshiped and had been the center of political and religious power?
Well, there are people who continued to worship there according to that tradition. They considered themselves the true descendents of Moses and the Exodus story—the people who, before the Babylonian exile, before David, before the Judges, before any of it, were the true Israelites.
They didn’t call themselves Jews, because they were not of the House of Judah. There were of the tribes of Joseph, Levi, Ephraim, and Manasseh, and they called themselves the Keepers of the Law—or the Keepers of the Torah—which in Hebrew is “Shamerim.” And the word Shamerim became Samaritan.
Samaritans and Jews are different groups. When the political and religious power moved to Jerusalem, it stayed there. But the Samaritans remained in their land, and remained true to their Torah, despite the fact that the Jews were many more in number and would not recognize them or their reading of history.
To walk around Shechem and Shiloh, and the ancient cities of Canaan would be to walk around Samaria, and see the ruins of the temple in Shechem and Mt. Gerizim, and to see where it all began—to mourn the division between our Israelite ancestors.
Jesus himself would walk around those ancient cities. The city of Shechem is also known as Sychar, and on the eastern side of it there is a well that belonged to Jacob that had been given to his ancestor Joseph. So you see, this well, and the whole city, was the place that was once “the place.”
Jesus and his disciples had been on the road, and Jesus decides to go over to the well, while the disciples go on into Shechem to find food. Jesus is sitting by the well, and a woman of Samaritan descent comes to draw water.
This is a clash of cultures and backgrounds. Jesus is of the House and lineage of David, who is of the House of Judah. Jesus is a Jew. The woman is probably—just by nature of the ancient map of tribes—she is probably of the House of Manasseh. They would have known each other’s background without any conversation. In fact, they would have had to, because Jews and Samaritans did not talk with each other. And even if they had, men and women did not talk with each other—certainly not while they are alone.
This is a scandalous sort of meeting. A Jew and Samaritan. A man and woman, alone. It took some guts for the woman to approach the well.
Jesus asks for a drink. But that’s not all he is asking. He is asking her to draw water with her own dipping spoon, and then give Jesus the water in that spoon. That action not only breaks the taboos of Jewish/Samaritan relations, it implies a level of intimacy that would be considered tantamount to sharing a bed.
The conversation that follows is also scandalous. Jesus tells her to bring her husband. She says she has no husband. Jesus says, That’s right you’ve had five husbands. I do not believe he is being critical of her. In that culture, women were passed around. Men could dismiss a wife, and leave her completely defenseless. The woman’s five husbands is not a condemnation of sexual impropriety—this woman has had to take those men just to eat and have a place to live.
I think what Jesus is saying is “You’ve had five husbands—you’ve had a hard life. And the man you are with right now—number six?—he might not keep you either. Woman, you have had it rough.”
The woman said, “Sir, we are from different backgrounds. Samaritans worship on Mt. Gerizim, because that’s where Joshua brought us—that’s “the place” for us. But you Jews—ever since David—you Jews say this is no longer “the place.” Jerusalem is “the place” God should be worshiped.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me…the hour is coming when it’s not going to matter whether it’s here or there. The hour is coming when this conversation, this place, this moment, this very second will be considered worship. It’ll no longer be `us and them.’ It’ll all be `us’ and God.”
The woman said, “Sir, I know that the Messiah is coming and he will tell us these things.” And Jesus said, “You’re looking at him.” The woman ran back into the ancient city of Shechem, and she told her friends, “You’re not going to believe this. I just met a Jewish man at the well, who not only speaks with me, but knows my life and background, and still wants to talk with me. I think he might be the Messiah.”
And the Samaritans who knew the woman came out to meet Jesus, and they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed with them for two days, and after that two days, they told the woman, “It is not because of what you said that we believe. We have heard him ourselves, and we know that this is not just the Messiah—this is the Savior of the world.”
Just a little compassion for a woman who had had a hard life. Just a little drink of water. Just a little conversation. Now that you know the story, you know that was nothing “little” about it.
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